Sing, Unburied, Sing: Book Review

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward published in 2017.


“Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.”

Trigger warning (1)

I went into this book with very high expectations, and for the most part, I was very satisfied.

This novel centres around thirteen-year-old Joseph (aka Jojo) living in southern Mississippi with his mother Leonie, his grandfather River, his grandmother Philomène, and his little sister Kayla. Meanwhile, his father, Michael, is just being released from Parchman Penitentiary. Leonie does not have a maternal bone in her body, so the children mainly have to depend on each other. The perspectives switch each chapter, mainly focusing on Jojo and Leonie yet there are two chapters dedicated to Richie, the ghost of a twelve-year-old boy who died at Parchman decades ago. After returning from Parchman Penitentiary to pick up Michael, only Jojo begins to see this boy, and he will not disappear until he hears the story of his death from River himself. Leonie is also haunted by the ghost of her brother Given, who was killed in a ‘hunting accident’ as a teenager. Throughout the whole novel, Ward explores themes such as manhood and racism through realistic and spiritual methods.

The first thing I need to talk about is the style of writing. When I was going through other reviews of Sing, Unburied, Sing, this was one of the features that were consistently present. The writing is very poetic and elegant, some scenes even transcending a narrative and sounding strictly like a sonnet.

Another aspect of the writing was the regional dialect. As mentioned above, it takes place in southern Mississippi, and you sure can tell by how it’s written. It most likely presented itself in improper grammar, for example, “We getting a place,” and “That don’t mean I won’t be here.” The grammar mistakes are slight and they don’t appear in each sentence, which is more realistic to true southern twang in my opinion.

While reading this book one thought kept popping up in my mind: Ward’s words were meant to be analyzed. Each sentence had some deeper meaning behind it, which could probably be interpreted differently by everyone. As fascinating this can be, there was a certain point that it was too much for me and I got tired to overthinking each line. I can’t complain too much though since all the scenes melded quite well together.

Moving on to the characters, most of them were very likeable and relatable. The grandparents were loving and dedicated to Jojo and Kayla, which somewhat made up for Leonie lack of motherhood. Speaking of Leonie, I had such a distaste for her character. She was neglected her children, yet when she did pay attention to them she was cruel and unforgivable. The only thing she cares about is doing drugs and her boyfriend, Michael. Leonie clearly does not want to be a mother and shows this by dispising her children for taking away her alleged freedom. Near the end when her mother was growing iller I felt a sliver of pity for her, but overall it’s hard to feel bad for a person who physically hits their children for any reason. To me, she was a character that was made to be hated, and if I was supposed to relate to her in any way it was not successful.

There’s a specific line I need to talk about (and yes, the word is need). It shook me to my core and I actually had to put the book down to fully absorb it. Jojo is speaking to his grandmother as her illness is growing stronger. She candidly tells him that Leonie doesn’t know how to be a mother, specifically saying “She ain’t never going to feed you.” After this, she embraces and says this,

“I hope I fed you enough. While I’m here. So you can carry it with you. Like a camel…Maybe that ain’t a good way of putting it. Like a well, Jojo. Pull that water up when you need it.”

This hit me so hard. There’s so much love behind this statement it’s almost palpable. It characterizes Philomène in such an intimate and maternal way. It’s an act that’s done within so many (yet not all, as seen with Leonie and Jojo) parental relationships. Here his grandmother takes that role, and it’s so gratifying to see Jojo finally get the love a growing boy deserves from his mother. Furthermore, it sets up the fact that she is soon going to pass away and Jojo may have to reach into this well of love when Leonie inevitable fails to give him love. Absolutely beautiful.

Now I have to talk about the elephant in the room, or more like the ghosts in the book. There are two main ghosts; Given, who haunts Leonie whenever she’s high, and Richie, a twelve-year-old boy River knew in Parchman. In some of the reviews I’ve read they thought the ghosts were cheesy and unrealistic, yet I didn’t interpret it like this. The ghosts in this story are not really the spooky kind of ghosts, yet more of a representation of the past. It was a method of storytelling that Ward choose to merge the past and present experiences of Black people in the southern USA. It’s really a wake-up call to readers saying that things have not really changed regarding racism. Maybe laws and policies that change, but at the core of it all, attitudes and perspectives have been cemented in American culture, especially in rural Mississippi. It’s a difficult but necessary truth that everyone should be faced with, and this book portrays it very well through the physical ghosts of the past.

The last thing I’m going to discuss is going to be a massive spoiler for the book. If you plan on reading, proceed with caution.

If there’s one thing I love in a book, it’s allusions to other pieces of literature. This was seen in the scene where River explains how Richie died. After Richie escaped the prison with another inmate, River found him before the other guards did. Unfortunately, the other inmate was not as lucky, and when he was caught he died a very slow and painful death at the hands of Parchman guards. River knew this would happen to Richie if he handed him over to the white guards, so he made the decision to give him a quick (and somewhat painless) death with a stab to the throat. My mind was blown at this part, I had to put the book down in shock. Of Mice and Men changed my life, and I was so excited to see a reference to George and Lennie’s relationship. It was the perfect allusion to add on to the heartbreakingly tragic backstory of Richie and helped characterize River as a merciful guardian.  

Even though this isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, I can appreciate everything it contributes to the literary scene and recognize that Ward has an incredible ability to tell a story and create mesmerizing characters. There’s no denying that it’s an enthralling narrative that reflects our current social dynamics and past tragedies that the Black community had to face. I would recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing to most people that have a mature attitude and sophisticated reading style, and if the summary peaks your interest, it’s definitely worth looking into.

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